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Ministers not protected under labor act

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a District Court's decision to toss out a case because the plaintiffs were not entitled to minimum wage and overtime under the "ministerial exception," although the Circuit Court modified the reason for dismissing the case.

In Steve and Lorrie Schleicher v. The Salvation Army, No. 07-1333, the Schleichers appealed the decision of U.S. District Judge Richard Young of the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, to dismiss the case for lack of federal jurisdiction. The Schleichers, ordained ministers of The Salvation Army, brought a suit against The Salvation Army, charging violations of the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Schleichers were administrators of The Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center in Indianapolis. The job did not pay wages, but they received a stipend of $150 a week. The Rehabilitation Center operated a total of five thrift shops, and most of the thrift shop employees were people down on their luck that The Salvation Army was attempting to redeem.

The couple was later expelled from The Salvation Army for filing the suit.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Young's decision to dismiss the case, although the case should have been dismissed because of lack of merits in the plaintiff's claims, wrote Judge Richard Posner.

The Schleichers were not employed by the thrift shops they worked at, nor is the Rehabilitation Center an ordinary business enterprise that would be subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Rehabilitation Center is a church, administered by church officials.

The question the Circuit Court had to decide was whether the fact that a church has a commercial dimension brings its ministers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

It does not, using the Schleichers case as an example, wrote Judge Posner, because the ministers who run the Rehabilitation Center don't wait on customers or manage the day-to-day operations, but instead they manage the religious complex that includes the thrift shops.

Comparing the Schleichers' thrift shops to a Catholic cathedral that runs a gift shop, Judge Posner wrote that the employees of the thrift shop would be subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, but the bishop who administers the cathedral is not.

"The Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Centers are functional equivalents of cathedrals or monasteries, and the ministers who administer them are therefore engaged in ecclesiastical administration," he wrote.

The best way to decide the case is to presume clerical personnel are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which can be rebutted by proof a church is fake or the title of "minister" is not appropriately bestowed upon an employee.

The Schleichers are properly ordained ministers in a completely legitimate church, so they are not subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Judge Posner wrote that although Judge Young was correct in dismissing the case, the judge dismissed the case for the wrong reason, creating a harmless error. Judge Young dismissed the case under a rule that allowed the court to toss cases that are not within the jurisdiction of the District Court. The case should have been dismissed because of its merits - that the court would not rule in an ecclesiastical controversy, Judge Posner wrote.
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